WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration signaled yesterday that the president will veto a new civil rights bill if it remains, as it is now, similar to the one he vetoed last year.
That indication launched what is likely to be a bitter and protracted political debate over whether the bill would pave the way for employers to use racial hiring quotas.
John R. Dunne, assistant attorney general for civil rights, told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil Rights that the proposed 1991 bill would result in the use of quotas and, therefore, that it "is not legislation the administration can support."
"We will not accept a bill that results in quotas or other unfair preferences," said the nation's chief civil rights law enforcement officer.
Like its vetoed predecessor, the bill aims to roll back a series of 1989 Supreme Court decisions that "seriously compromised" the nation's civil rights laws, particularly those dealing with discrimination in employment, said subcommittee Chairman Don Edwards, D-Calif.
But even before Mr. Dunne had a chance to state formally the administration's position on the bill, the debate was joined over what he would later describe as "the Q word": quotas.
"This is not a quota bill," Mr. Edwards said in his introductory remarks.
Representative Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, ranking Republican on the subcommittee, immediately responded that the bill would lead to quotas, which he described as "a very real evil" for denying "the promise of civil rights."
Representative John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., said the administration's concern over quotas was "an artificial claim." Personally, he said, he was "prepared to wade through the quota argument for the next several months."
Mr. Conyers pointed out "one thing different" about the debate this time: the presence of a "disproportionate" number of blacks among U.S. military forces in the Persian Gulf.
While blacks make up about 12 percent of the U.S. population, the Pentagon estimates that 25 percent of U.S. forces -- and about 30 percent of Army troops -- deployed in Operation Desert Storm are black.
As Mr. Conyers was raising this issue before the civil rights subcommittee, Gen. Colin L. Powell, the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was testifying nearby before the House Armed Services Committee.
"The fact that we have a higher percentage than the percentage that exists in the general population doesn't trouble me at all," General Powell said.
But he expressed the "wish that there were other activities in our society and in our nation that were as open as the military is to upward mobility, to achievement."